Quarantine (United States, 2008)

A movie review by James Berardinelli
Quarantine Poster

It has become tiresome to travel to a multiplex seemingly every other Friday to see the latest remake of a foreign horror film. For the most part, the problem isn't that these productions are remakes but that they're bad remakes. In some cases, that's because the source material isn't good and in some cases it's because something is broken in the translation. The reason the term "remake" has developed a negative connotation isn't because the re-imagination of a story in another era or for a different culture is inherently flawed but because so many of them are produced without any concern for intelligence or artistry. Quarantine is an English-language remake of the 2007 Spanish horror film [Rec]. While the films are in many ways similar (with certain shots and passages of dialogue being identical), Quarantine fails to correct some of the problems evident in its predecessor while also incorporating a few defects of its own.

The first-person style is an inherent roadblock to Quarantine achieving any degree of mainstream acceptance. Nausea-inducing movies like this rarely work well with audiences, even when there's a huge marketing campaign at work (Cloverfield, for example). Quarantine is a small movie with a mostly unknown cast, and it looks like it was made for next to nothing. The reason for filming a movie in this faux documentary style is to increase the sense of immediacy and bring the viewer into the action. (It's a more popular approach for video games than motion pictures, but one wonders whether that may be changing.) Quarantine succeeds at that, but the film's greatest strength is also its undoing. Intimacy devolves into chaos during the final third, when the camera is shaking so badly that it's next to impossible to figure out what's going on.

As the picture opens, TV reporter Angela Vidal (Jennifer Carpenter) is preparing to do an in-depth report on what it's like to be a firefighter in Los Angeles. Accompanying her is her faithful cameraman, Scott (Steve Harris), who is largely heard but not seen. Angela and Scott have been assigned to shadow two of L.A.'s finest: Jake (Jay Hernandez) and Fletcher (Johnathon Schaech). The first third of Quarantine is relatively sedate as director John Erick Dowdle introduces the characters and sets up the relationships. With its relatively stable cinematography and low-key interaction, this part of the movie works reasonably well and Jennifer Carptenter's limitations as an actress aren't a serious detriment.

The middle third of Quarantine places the firefighters and reporters in a decrepit apartment building after they have responded to a 911 call. No sooner are they inside than the authorities on the outside lock and bar the doors. It seems that there's a dangerous contagion on the loose within the building and the CDC can't risk it getting into the outside world. A number of inhabitants have become infected with a mutant strain of rabies that causes them to act like they're in a George A. Romero movie. In fact, Romero has already made a zombie movie using this style, so I'm wondering why another one is necessary.

Any goodwill that Dowdle builds up with his reasonably restrained approach to Quarantine's first 60 minutes is discarded as the film rushes headlong toward its climax. The extremity of the camera's shaking and flash-panning didn't make me motion sick (a condition to which I am prone outside of theaters), but it disoriented and annoyed me. There's nothing I dislike more than having no idea what's going on. Worse still, the audio consists primarily of loud noises and the lead actress whimpering. The ending is neither a shock nor a surprise. Not only is the final shot shown in the trailers, but it's used for the poster image. Talk about spoilers.

For those who can put aside the first-person style and the uninspired acting, all that's left is a group of people trapped inside a dark building, trying to avoid being bitten by zombie-like creatures. To say that's an overly familiar story is to be kind. The first act is supposed to humanize the characters enough so that we feel something when the panic sets in, but the documentary approach is distancing. The more the camera shakes and the less coherent the visuals become, the less we care about the protagonists. And what's the likelihood a sane cameraman is going to continue filming when circumstances require him to run for his life? All first-person films face this credulity gap, but it is glaringly obvious in Quarantine.

Based on multiple viewings of each, The Blair Witch Project, Diary of the Dead, and Cloverfield all play better on DVD than in theaters. There's something about the approach that is more effective on a smaller screen. Maybe the same will be true of Quarantine. It's easily the weakest entry into this ever-expanding category and is inferior to its subtitled source material. Quarantine implies "stay away" and that's not bad advice.

Quarantine (United States, 2008)

Run Time: 1:28
U.S. Release Date: 2008-10-10
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1